A future commercial development called the Stone Mill Center near the Pedro Wye intersection between Sonora and Columbia appears to have hit another snag after the Tuolumne Utilities District Board of Directors did not approve an agreement with the project’s developer Tuesday night.
The board ultimately took no action after being unable to agree on whether to send the proposal to a committee for further review or approve it as presented during a marathon meeting that lasted more than six hours and included a bleak update on the district’s current water-supply outlook.
Glen Nunnelley, associate engineer for TUD, said snow accumulation in the watershed that feeds the district’s main storage reservoirs — Pinecrest and Lyons — is about 25% of normal to date.
The district uses 17,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoirs, which are owned and operated by Pacific and Gas Electric Co. and store up to about 24,000 acre-feet combined. There’s typically about 15,000 to 20,000 acre-feet in the snowpack by mid-January, though there’s only about 5,000 to 6,000 acre-feet currently this year.
“We’re pretty low in snow,” he said. “It’s there, I skied on it last week. However, we’re going to need more.”
Nunnelley said PG&E is currently projecting that both reservoirs will fill and spill this year despite the dry conditions. He also showed a slide of the snowfall accumulation to date compared to past dry years that showed us currently trending above 2014, the last time there was real concern about the reservoirs not filling with water.
With regard to the Stone Mill Center, the board was specifically considering approving an environmental document known as a CEQA notice of determination and an agreement with the developer to extend TUD’s water and sewer main pipes that surround the property on the southwest corner of Parrotts Ferry and Union Hill roads.
Two TUD directors, Jeff Kerns and Board President Barbara Balen, had to recuse themselves due to potential conflicts of interest. Kerns owns Yosemite Title Co. in Sonora that has done business with the developer in the past, while Balen has spoken at previous public meetings about concerns related to traffic near the project site.
The recusals left the decision up to TUD directors Ron Ringen, Lisa Murphy and David Boatright, who would have to vote unanimously for anything to pass.
Ringen, who serves as the board’s vice president this year, expressed concerns mainly about the project’s potential impact on the district’s water supply. He referred to a Dec. 10 internal memo sent to the board by TUD General Manager Ed Pattison that described this water-supply outlook as “grim” at the time.
“My point is, how do you OK a connection of this size with the ability of it to move to other parcels next to it on the backs of the ratepayer?” he asked.
Three buildings totaling about 16,000 square feet of commercial space would be constructed at the site, which TUD staff has estimated would use about 1,084 gallons of water per day. That amount would roughly equal the daily usage of four average single-family homes, or about .01% of the district’s overall demand.
Erik Johnson, TUD district engineer, said they don’t feel that the development’s demand would have an impact on how much customers would be asked to conserve during times of drought. However, he also noted that TUD doesn’t currently know what types of businesses will operate at the center.
Johnson and Pattison said one option for the board if it has a real concern about supply is to implement a moratorium on all future new connections into TUD’s system until steps can be taken to improve the situation, though they warned that would have serious economic consequences.
Murphy suggested sending the project back to a committee for further study of the questions about water supply, in part because she had concerns related to studies suggesting that climate change will further reduce snow amounts at lower elevations and how that will impact TUD’s system in the future.
Boatright voted against sending the project to a committee and moved to approve the CEQA document and proposed agreement as presented, but his motion died for lack of support from either Ringen or Murphy.
Gary Simning, the developer of the project, argued for the board to approve the proposals based on the findings from TUD staff. He also said the project’s environmental analysis has been thoroughly vetted in court. A yearlong lawsuit against him and the county was tossed out by a judge in 2017.
“You need to do the right thing, quite frankly,” he said. “You are now public officials. You need to make decisions based on the facts and not some game you’re playing.”
Simning could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, nor could Pattison to see what options the developer has moving forward.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 768-5175.